From a “Gay Rat Wedding” to Intergalactic Nonbinary Heroes: Children’s Media to Help Your Family Celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride All Year

By Kate BoveLast Updated Nov 13, 2020 11:26:06 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Cartoon Network/IMDb

Back in 2005, before Arthur’s "Gay Rat Wedding" episode, the PBS series about an anthropomorphic, school-aged aardvark faced backlash due to a spin-off episode called "Postcards From Buster." In it, Arthur’s rabbit pal, Buster, visited actual (live-action) families, and one of those families happened to be a lesbian couple from Vermont. The public outcry was so huge that the then-U.S. Secretary of Education demanded PBS return the public funds it used to create the episode. And that was just 15 years ago.

"Until very recently, LGBTQ people would look to media and not have any representation or would only have a negative stereotype to identify with," wrote April Sizemore-Barber, a professor in the women’s and gender studies program at Georgetown University. "This absence of stories leads to ignorance among members of the general public [who don’t see LGBTQ stories represented] and isolation for those who identify as LGBTQ+ and are implicitly told that they don’t exist."

It’s clear that a lot of work needs to be done, and while much of that work falls to the folks actually making and green-lighting the content, audiences and readers can help by supporting content that features LGBTQ+ narratives. Plus, animated programming for children over the last five decades has been slanted heavily to reinforce gender stereotypes that nowadays are considered quite problematic (looking at you, Disney). So, whether you’re looking to celebrate Pride Month, diversify your kids’ media intake year-round or find positive representation for LGBTQ+ children who want to see themselves reflected in queer characters and stories, we’ve rounded up must-watch TV shows and must-read books that center queerness.

“She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” a Reboot by Noelle Stevenson

Created by Eisner Award-winning comic writer/artist Noelle Stevenson (Nimona, Lumberjanes), She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a reboot of the 1985 series She-Ra: Princess of Power — a spinoff of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The series’ protagonist is Adora, a teenager who trained alongside her gal pal Catra under Lord Hordak in the evil Horde army.

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Photo Courtesy: Dreamworks Animation/Netflix/IMDb

In the pilot, Adora gains the power to turn herself into the show’s titular heroine and, together with a group of other magical princesses, vows to defeat Hordak. The show is full of queer characters, including a nonbinary, shapeshifting character named Double Trouble (Jacob Tobia) and Spinerella and Netossa, two queer women in a same-sex relationship. Additionally, the Emmy- and GLAAD Media Award-nominated show has been praised for taking on difficult topics, such as the complex best friend-turned-archenemy relationship between Adora and Catra, which — spoiler alert! — culminated in a very clear, and very queer, declaration of love in the show’s recent final season. With a diverse cast and a great mix of action, humor and feels, She-Ra is an epic romp you won’t want to miss.

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The “Frog and Toad” Books by Arnold Lobel

While these sweet stories about two tweed-wearing amphibians aren’t explicitly queer, and while we’d normally champion works that go beyond subtext, there’s something special about Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books. Published between 1970 and 1979, the stories were written amid Lobel’s own personal revelation. "I think Frog and Toad really was the beginning of him coming out," Adrianne Lobel, the author’s daughter, told The New Yorker.

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Photo Courtesy: Goodreads

If Frog and Toad had been written about in a different time, their queerness probably would’ve been more than subtext, but it still resonates deeply. "What my partner and I have found, though, is that in the pages of Lobel’s queer love story, there is a blueprint for how to live and thrive as a queer couple," S.E. Fleenor writes in an essay for Electric Literature. "The beloved characters are good role models for children in any number of ways, demonstrating positive ways of coping with anxiety, frustration, and boredom... I’ve also realized that they’re the model of a queer relationship I always needed."

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Rebecca Sugar’s “Steven Universe”

Created by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network, Steven Universe tells the coming-of-age story of the titular boy (Zach Callison). Although Steven’s dad is a car wash-owning rock musician, his mom, Rose Quartz, was a gem — a magical, humanoid alien from outer space. Years ago, Rose led the Crystal Gems, a rebel group, in war to protect Earth from the clutches of her alien Homeworld. In giving birth to Steven, Rose passed on her powers and life-force, so the members of the Crystal Gems — Rose’s ex and ever-type-A Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall); cool, calm and collected Garnet (Estelle); and the brash-but-lovable Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) — raise Steven and protect Earth in Rose’s stead.

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Photo Courtesy: Cartoon Network/IMDb

This decidedly queer Peabody Award-winning show is often hilarious, but it also speaks to the importance of chosen family (also queer) and how to form healthy interpersonal relationships.

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Pictured here are several of the show’s queer characters: In order to become stronger, Steven Universe’s Gem characters can fuse together when needed. But Steven, our half-Gem and half-human protagonist, has the uncanny ability to fuse with his human friend Connie Maheswaran. Together, the duo make up Stevonnie (left), who uses gender-neutral pronouns and came out in a PSA about social media and self-esteem as non-binary and intersex.

On the right are Ruby and Sapphire, the two Gems who fuse to make Garnet, one of Steven’s guardians. Instead of fusing temporarily, Ruby and Sapphire remain Garnet almost always as an expression of their love. Showrunner and creator Rebecca Sugar, a bisexual nonbinary woman, has said that "the Gems are all nonbinary women… They’re coded female… They wouldn’t think of themselves as women, but they're fine with being interpreted that way amongst humans." In a 2018 episode, Ruby asks Sapphire to marry her, marking the first same-sex proposal in mainstream children’s TV — which, of course, was followed by a groundbreaking wedding episode.

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Becky Albertalli’s “Simonverse” — Both on the Page and on the Screen

Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young adult (YA) novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda skyrocketed to success, cementing the author’s place as a beloved YA writer — so much so that her other books, The Upside of Unrequited, Leah on the Offbeat and the forthcoming Love, Creekwood, have added even more dimension to what’s been dubbed the "Simonverse." All of Albertalli’s books really capture teen voices and stories — many of them queer — but there’s something so winning about Simon in particular.

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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

In the novel, Simon’s a closeted gay teen who is relieved — and anxious and excited — to discover that at least one other classmate, who posts anonymously on a message board, is queer and not yet ready to come out. Under a fake name, Simon embarks on a secret email friendship with the other teen, known only as Blue — before finding himself blackmailed by fellow high schooler Martin when he forgets to log out of his email. When Simon is eventually outed, he has to navigate both positive and negative reactions from his friends and family, and, eager to meet Blue in real life, takes a big chance on love.

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In 2018, Albertalli’s book was adapted into the sweet rom-com, Love, Simon, which, although a little sanitized and glossy, gives queer kids (and adults) a mainstream gay teen movie. (Hopefully, the first of many!) Bonus: Love, Victor, a spin-off of the movie, just launched on Hulu.

“The Boy & the Bindi” by Vivek Shraya with Illustrations by Rajni Perera

Canadian musician, writer, visual artist and Tegan and Sara Foundation board member Vivek Shraya’s first book, God Loves Hair, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the YA category. Centered around the life of a brown, genderqueer child growing up in an immigrant family in Alberta, the book is composed of illustrated, linked stories. Several years later, The Boy & the Bindi marks Shraya’s first foray into writing a children’s picture book.

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Photo Courtesy: @VivekShraya/Twitter

Illustrated by Rajni Perera, the book is about a young boy’s obsession with his mother’s bindi — "a colored dot worn on the center of the forehead," originally by folks from India who practice Hinduism and Jainism — and his desire to wear a bindi, too. The School Library Journal praised the book, noting, "With gentle rhymes and warm whimsy, amplified by Toronto artist Perera’s richly hued illustrations… [Shraya], a transgender woman, deftly explores difference and self-acceptance, the subversion of gender expectations, and the power of ‘making sure I don’t hide/Everything I am inside.’"

Marvel’s “Runaways”

Marvel’s Runaways, a Hulu series based on the superhero team of the same name, follows six teenagers (and one dinosaur) from different backgrounds as they unite against a common enemy — their criminal parents, who are collectively known as Pride. Two of these teens are Nico (Lyrica Okano) — a Wiccan who wields the arcane Staff of One — and Karolina (Virginia Gardner) — a human-alien hybrid who learns she can fly and shoot beams of light from her hands. You know, typical teen stuff.

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Photo Courtesy: Marvel Entertainment/Hulu/IMDb

What’s unique about this story? It isn’t focused on the teens’ coming-out process. Almost right from the jump, the audience learns that Karolina has a crush on her friend Nico. But she’s not afraid of making a move because of who she is — she’s just afraid of being rejected by her crush. When Karolina does confess her feelings to Nico, the two share a kiss, which marks an onscreen first for Marvel’s queer superheroes.

Mythology-Based Books From the “Riordanverse”

Rick Riordan is best known for his chart-topping YA novel Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which tells the story of a young boy who discovers he’s a demi-god — and then finds himself caught up in modern-day Greek mythology-inspired misadventures. After writing many a novel inspired by Greek mythology, Riordan pivoted to Norse mythology, which brings us to Magnus Chase 2: The Hammer of Thor, which won a Stonewall Award for queer representation.

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Photo Courtesy: Steincraft/Riordan Wiki

After receiving the Stonewall, Riordan said in his acceptance speech, "So, what is an old cis straight white male doing up here? Where did I get the nerve to write Alex Fierro, a transgender, gender fluid child of Loki in The Hammer of Thor, and why should I get cookies for that? These are all fair and valid questions, which I have been asking myself a lot." Riordan went on to say because his queer readers want to be part of the universe he’s created, he felt responsible for creating some mainstream representation. "As important as it is to offer authentic voices and empower authors and role models from within LGBTQ community, it’s also important that LGBTQ kids see themselves reflected and valued in the larger world of mass media. ...I will not erase you."

TLDR: Check out Riordan’s queer-inclusive fantasy novels. And check out his Rick Riordan Presents imprint, which leverages his platform to give more visibility to #OwnVoices Percy Jackson-esque works about other cultures and mythologies — by authors with those actual, lived experiences. (J.K. Rowling could never.)

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“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki with Illustrations by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

After working on projects involving Marvel’s She-Hulk, DC Comics’ Supergirl and Noelle Stevenson’s queer comic Lumberjanes, writer Mariko Tamaki collaborated with artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell for the hit graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. Set in Berkeley, California, the book centers on Frederica, or Freddy, a 17-year-old biracial lesbian, and, as the title of the graphic novel suggests, she struggles with her on-again/off-again relationship with "cool girl" Laura Dean.

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Photo Courtesy: Goodreads

At first, the premise might seem like quirky rom-com fodder, but it becomes a very real examination of a toxic relationship: Laura constantly gaslights Freddy, manipulates her and fetishizes their relationship. At its core, Laura Dean is a story about finding one’s own self-worth and identity — of not letting others (or others’ actions) define you, which isn’t something a lot of YA media tackles in such a head-on way. Additionally, Forbes writer Rob Salkowitz wrote that Laura Dean’s inclusion of a "depoliticized and unfussy depiction of gender-fluid teen culture in the 2010s" makes the graphic novel "a step forward in LGBTQ graphic literature."

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“The Legend of Korra” Show — But, Honestly, More So the Comics

The Legend of Korra is the sequel series to Nickelodeon’s beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender series. The original show tells the story of Aang — a young boy who can bend (or control) the four elements of fire, water, air and earth, because he is the Avatar, a being that’s the bridge between the human and spirit worlds and who is destined to bring about balance. Aang is tasked with mastering the elements and saving the world from a century-long war that’s coming to a head. In the sequel series, Korra, who is born the Avatar after Aang passes away, is tasked with carrying on that legacy and mastering the elements.

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Photo Courtesy: Nickelodeon/IMDb; Dark Horse Comics

Like Aang, Korra gets by with a little help from her friends — namely Bolin, Mako and Asami. In the show’s first season, Korra crushes hard on Mako, the jock of the group, but he and Asami end up being an item — well, until the finale, when he and Korra finally get together. While Korra and Mako don’t last more than a half season, the Avatar does end up finding true love.

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At the time, Korra’s series finale was a landmark moment for children’s television — and television in general. In the third and final seasons in particular, there seems to be a growing romantic tension between Korra and Asami — though fans, used to being let down by queer rep in cartoons in general, felt the subtext wouldn’t go beyond that. But, in the last few moments of the show, the pair clasp hands and embark on a new journey together — just the two of them. They almost kiss, but don’t — because Nickelodeon wasn’t ready for that. Luckily, subsequent comic series, Turf Wars and Ruins of the Empire, have gone on to flesh out the pair’s very queer, very open romance.

And a Shoutout to Popular TV Shows With Truly Unforgettable Queer Moments

A few cartoons that don’t necessarily center on queer characters — or that have shyed away from declaring that queerness forthright (cough, Adventure Time, cough) — have still provided some incredible milestones in on-screen LGBTQ+ representation.

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Photo Courtesy: Cartoon Network/IMDb; DC Comics/IMDb; PBS/IMDb

First up is Halo from DC Comics’ Young Justice. A fusion of Gabrielle Daou, a deceased Quraci girl, and the spirit of a Motherbox, or "living computer," Halo joins Nightwing’s team of heroes. Halo doesn’t view themself as Gabrielle anymore, instead going by the pseudonym Violet Harper, and, while they don’t explicitly use the term "nonbinary," they do announce that they don’t know if they are a boy or a girl when misgendered by a teammate.

Second, we have Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. Like Korra and Asami, these two seemingly had a subtextual romance brewing. In fact, it was strongly implied, both in the show and in spin-off comics, that the two denizens of the Land of Ooo were ex-lovers. After countless gal pal adventures, a lot of very sweet sentiments and 10 long seasons, the duo finally cemented their romance onscreen with a passionate kiss in the series’ finale.

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Finally, we’re giving a special shoutout to Arthur, the beloved PBS series about an elementary school-aged, anthropomorphic aardvark. Last May, during season 22 of the series, Arthur’s longtime teacher, Mr. Ratburn, married his partner, Patrick. The same-sex marriage, which was colloquially dubbed the "Gay Rat Wedding" online, received a swell of support from queer fans, allies and organizations like GLAAD. (Sadly, there were detractors too.) What’s most exciting about the episode? Although Arthur doesn’t center on a queer character, this storyline does reflect changing norms, not just in children’s programming but in society at large.

BONUS: This Character From “Adventure Time”

Finally, nothing says "Happy Pride" like an anthropomorphic cartoon cloud with Cameron Esposito’s iconic side-mullet queercut. Thanks, Adventure Time!

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Photo Courtesy: Cartoon Network/HBO Max; @CameronEsposito/Twitter